NFC Wildcard game 1 – Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers

The major point of interest surrounding this game is whether or not a team who ended the regular season with a record of 7-8-1 should be afforded the luxury of hosting a playoff game against a team who finished the season 11-5. However incongruous this seems to casual observers there’s not much chance of the NFL and NFLPA changing the structure of the season or the playoffs anytime soon, especially given the recent handling of player disciplinary matters and how far apart the 2 parties are in that regard.
The game itself could actually prove to be the exception to the rule that teams with a superior record should be at home as the Cardinals very promising season has been hit by an injury juggernaut and after battling on manfully it could finally collapse in Charlotte. The Cardinals have 8 players on season ending Injured Reserve, which isn’t technically a huge number but it includes their first choice Quarterback Carson Palmer and leading rusher Andre Ellington, they’re also missing another Running back Jonathan Dwyer who is involved in legal proceedings regarding domestic abuse charges. Added to those 9 players the Cardinals also had injury concerns over 14 further players in week 17 including rookie Drew Stanton the second choice Quarterback who hasn’t played since late in week 15’s game with St. Louis. Stanton suffered sprains to both the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) and Medial Cruciate Ligament (MCL) in his right knee, as if that weren’t enough it was reported on boxing day that he had undergone surgery to remove an infection in the same knee and may not play again until next season!
Coincidentally the Panthers also have 8 players on the Injured Reserve list and one player missing as he contests domestic abuse charges in court, they have fewer skill players on IR than the Cardinals though instead missing 5 Offensive lineman. The Panthers week 17 injury report only included 2 players so they look to have much less disruption to their starting lineup than the Cardinals have suffered for the last 7 weeks.
If both teams were able to put out first choice teams then this would be an intriguing battle of defences with some dynamic pass rushers on display but with the Panther’s Greg Hardy’s legal issues and the Cardinals missing the injured Darnell Dockett both Quarterback’s can feel slightly safer on Saturday. A brief perusal of both teams statistics this season doesn’t really offer up much hope of a free scoring shootout, the most prominent statistics show that the Panthers kick coverage has really been below par this season and is ranked 31st in the league but the Cardinals have the worst kick return average in the league with just 19 yards per return but if kick return is your main offensive weapon then you’re probably clutching at straws anyway. Obviously with injuries to key players on offence the Cardinals will be relying heavily on their defence to make plays and if they can contain the Panthers run game and put the emphasis on Cam Newtown to make plays through the air then playmakers like Patrick Peterson and Rashad Johnson could well add to the touchdowns they scored in the regular season.
Regardless of all the seasons statistics the deciding factor in this game could be form, the Panthers have won their last 3 games while the Cardinals have lost 2 of their last 3 games. However scheduling has played a rather large part in that as the Cardinals last 3 games involved a resurgent Seattle team and an emotional denouement to Jim Harbaugh’s career in San Francisco while the Panthers played a self destructing Saints in the Superdome, the Jonny Manziel experiment that was the Cleveland Browns and a Falcons team who along with former Head Coach Mike Smith always traditionally wilted under pressure.
The Panthers have won just 3 games at home all season, (that’s that losing record coming back to bite them) and they haven’t played a playoff team since week 9 when they only managed to score 9 points against the Cardinals divisional rivals the Seattle Seahawks. The Cardinals have won 5 road games this season although it’s almost impossible to draw any conclusions regarding their form since they’ve lost so many players over the course of the season, but if you were looking for a playoff “upset” this is probably the game for you. I’d like to say it’ll be a nailbiter and decided by a last gasp field goal but if this NFL season has taught us anything it’s that only fools make those sort of sweeping statements.

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